Types of Seabirds

What Are the Pelagic Birds?

When most birders think of seabirds, they imagine a lone bird soaring over endless waves. While that image is accurate for many seabirds, understanding the different types of seabirds can lead to a much better appreciation of these unique and varied birds.

Click on any category for a more detailed definition and species examples.

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    Albatross

    Black-Footed Albatross
    Black-Footed Albatross. Photo © Tim Lenz

    Albatrosses are tremendous pelagic birds. They are among the largest flying birds in the world, with mammoth wingspans and narrow wings that give them superb lift for easy flight. Unlike many marine birds, albatrosses also walk well on land. There are 22 albatross species in the world, all of which are part of the Diomedeidae bird family.

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    Auk

    Pigeon Guillemot
    Pigeon Guillemot. Photo © Alan Vernon

    There are many types of auks, but with their compact bodies all are well adapted to northern seas and colder waters. Murres, puffins and guillemots are all types of auks. These birds typically have upright posture on land but can be clumsy when walking. Most have black and white plumage, and many also have colorful bills or distinct markings. All auks are part of the Alcidae bird family.

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    Booby

    Nazca Booby
    Nazca Booby. Photo © Alan

    Boobies are named for their somewhat stupid expressions and history of gullible behavior where hungry sailors are concerned. These are beautiful tropical gannets with bright bills and feet, including the familiar and celebrated blue-footed booby. These are larger, heavy birds that can seem awkward in flight, but are often seen perched on buoys, cliffs or rocks. All boobies are part of the Sulidae family.

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    Frigatebird

    Magnificent Frigatebird
    Magnificent Frigatebird. Photo © David Brossard

    Also called the pirate bird or man-of-war bird, frigatebirds are stately fliers with long, hooked bills, sharply pointed wings and boldly forked tails. The red gular sac of the males is distinctive, as is this bird's high, soaring flight. These are large birds that may circle slowly and elegantly before diving to steal fish from other birds. All five frigatebird species belong to the Fregatidae bird family.

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  • 05 of 12

    Fulmar

    Northern Fulmar
    Northern Fulmar. Photo © Arne List

    Often confused with gulls because of their chunky build and short tails, fulmars are actually a type of petrel. They are opportunistic feeders and forage widely, including visiting land for trash or carrion. They are tubenoses with prominent bill structures that help filter salt out of the seawater they drink. There are only two fulmar species in the world, the northern fulmar and the southern fulmar. Both are included in the Procellariidae family.

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    Gannet

    Australasian Gannet
    Australasian Gannet. Photo © Wayne Butterworth

    Gannets are large, chunky birds that may appear somewhat ungainly on land, but they are strong fliers and powerful dive fishers. Their white plumage, buff-tinged head and black wingtips are distinctive for all three gannet species: northern gannet, cape gannet and Australasian gannet. Because of those similarities, range is critical to tell the species apart. All three gannets are part of the Sulidae bird family along with their close relatives, the boobies.

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    Murre

    Common Murre
    Common Murre. Photo © Dan Hershman

    A type of auk that resembles penguins, murres have dark and light countershaded plumage and will swim underwater in pursuit of fish. When on land, they have an upright posture and waddling gait. There are only two murre species, the common murre and the thick-billed murre, both of which are found in northern oceans. These species are part of the Alcidae bird family with other types of auks, including puffins and guillemots.

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    Penguin

    Emperor Penguin
    Emperor Penguin. Photo © Christopher Michel

    Flightless birds of the southern oceans, penguins are specialized seabirds well equipped for frigid waters with insulating plumage and fat. They are stunning swimmers and have specialized flippers rather than feathered wings. Despite their chilly reputation, however, several penguin species actually breed in tropical regions. The 18 penguin species vary greatly in size and range, though several types of penguins are physically similar. All penguins are in the Spheniscidae bird family.

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  • 09 of 12

    Petrel

    Cape Petrel
    Cape Petrel. Photo © Ed Dunens

    Petrels are small seabirds are distinguished by their elongated, tubular nostrils and their low, wave-skimming flight. They often stay so close to the water that they have the the appearance of walking on its surface. Like many seabirds, petrels stay at sea nearly all their lives, returning to land only to breed. Birds called "petrel" are found in several scientific families. While some classifications are not universally accepted, the true petrels are generally considered part of the...MORE Procellariidae family.

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    Puffin

    Atlantic Puffin
    Atlantic Puffin. Photo © Larry Hennessy

    Puffins are large auks with broad, colorful bills and whimsical expressions. Because of this, they are often called sea clowns or sea parrots. They are powerful swimmers and nest in large breeding colonies, typically on offshore islands or isolated northern coasts. On land, they have an upright posture, and while in flight their wing beats are rapid and their flight path direct. There are only four puffin species - horned puffin, Atlantic puffin and tufted puffin - and all belong to the Alcidae b...MOREird family.

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    Shearwater

    Flesh-Footed Shearwater
    Flesh-Footed Shearwater. Photo © Ed Dunens

    Shearwaters are small petrels with long wings that specialize in low, gliding flight. Their wingtips may brush the waves and "shear the water" as they fly, giving these birds their familiar name. There are more than 30 species of shearwater and these birds can be found worldwide, but they often remain far out to sea. Where feeding conditions are ideal, they can gather in large groups, especially where upwellings bring prey - fish, plankton, squid, etc. - close to the surface. Shearwaters...MORE are part of the Procellariidae family.

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    Tropicbird

    White-Tailed Tropicbird
    White-Tailed Tropicbird. Photo © kansasphoto

    Unlike many seabirds, tropicbirds have primarily white plumage and are easily identified by their very long streaming tail feathers. They have short legs and are shallow plunge divers when they hunt. There are only three species of tropicbird - the red-billed tropicbird, the white-tailed tropicbird and the red-tailed tropicbird. Because they are so distinct, they are the only members of the Phaethontidae family.